DENVER – Bardo Coffee House doesn't look like it hosts too many Tom Tancredo voters. The clientele for its cortado consists overwhelmingly of bearded hipsters plunking away at sticker-covered Macbooks. But it’s actually an old haunt for the former congressman. Truth be told, he didn’t look too out of place on Thursday in his ragged jeans, periwinkle t-shirt, and brown canvass loafers. It was impossible for the casual café-goer to know whether his black baseball hat featuring a screaming eagle with a rifle was ironic or not.
There was a pep in Tancredo’s step as he arrived for his interview with his excitable goldendoodle, Sasha. Since losing the Republican primary for governor last month, the anti-immigration firebrand has been able to spend more time with his dog, more time at his grandchildren’s sports games, and less time fending off attack ads.
It would be a shame to have to blow it all up to run for president.
“Sure, I've thought about it,” Tancredo told msnbc. “It requires such an enormous infrastructural development that it was much easier to undertake when I was in Congress than now. I just don’t know if I could get it done. And you know, I am getting older."
Long before Iowa Rep. Steve King called DREAMers drug smugglers with “calves the size of cantaloupes," Tancredo warned, “Miami is becoming a third-world country” and led the charge against President Bush’s reform efforts.
Tancredo’s devotion to demanding more border security, more deportations, and no legal status for undocumented immigrants has made him persona non grata with national Republicans desperately trying to court Latinos in states like Colorado. His suggestion that Americans should have to pass a civics and literacy test to vote, which critics likened to Jim Crow laws, didn’t exactly win him friends among Republicans worried about the African-American vote, either.
"I knew I wasn’t going to be president."'
Tancredo didn’t want to run for president the last time either. He begged former contender Pat Buchanan to run in his place. But after Buchanan passed, he decided somebody needed to run on immigration.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be president. I know I have a lot of faults, but I don't think I’m delusional,” he said. “The purpose was to advance the issue as much as impossible. The tall guys with good hair on the stage up there with me had to talk about border security even though they didn’t want to.”
Thanks to conservatives like Tancredo, immigration reform is once again dead in the House of Representatives, but the field of potential presidential candidates skews more moderate: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Paul Ryan all support a path to permanent legal status for undocumented immigrants and the remaining heavyweights have carefully avoided Tancredo-esque turns of the phrase. Only Sen. Ted Cruz has piqued Tancredo’s interest recently, but he’s unsure of his devotion to the issue.
None of this is encouraging to Tancredo, who doesn’t want to just kill immigration reform but also rally support for a new border crackdown. He sees only two routes to such a controversial measure passing: a devastating terror attack originating from the border (a scenario he depicted in a presidential campaign ad) or the right Republican nominee.
"I can't think of anything short of that,” he said. “Unless there's a truly significant and well-financed and well-organized campaign by someone at the presidential level and I don't know who that is now.”
Even if he doesn’t run for president himself, he has a bit of a personal hobby in the race: stopping New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from winning.
"Gov. Christie has given me a new raison d'etre," a cheery Tancredo said. "I certainly will participate in that mission, I don't know if I will be the sole missionary but I will do whatever I can."
For Tancredo, Christie is the face of the Republican establishment that helped squash – barely – his run for governor against eventual nominee Bob Beauprez. In the race’s final weeks, Tancredo accused the Christie-chaired Republican Governors Association of funneling money to outside groups running ads accusing him of backing the legalization of hard drugs. Party leaders feared he would lose the Latino vote so badly – 86% voted against him in his 2010 gubernatorial run – that he’d drag Republican Senate nominee Cory Gardner and Republican Rep. Mike Coffman down with him.
"Governor Christie has given me a new raison d'etre."'
As Tancredo noted, it wasn’t just Republicans who got involved in the primary, though. The Democratic Governors Association ran “attack” ads against Tancredo calling him “too conservative for Colorado” in what seemed to be an obvious effort to boost his chances of winning the nomination.
“It didn’t help me one bit, because it was so blatant,” Tancredo said. “Every Republican knew what they were doing.”
Democratic strategists may love Tancredo, but among progressive voters and especially immigration activists he’s more or less Voldermort.
“My whole life I’ve been picketed,” he said. “Riots have literally broken out when I speak.”
He’s not kidding. One speech at the University of North Carolina ended with campus police pepper spraying student protesters after they broke a window.
Doesn’t it ever get demoralizing being so hated?
“I’m happy to be identified, I guess, with a philosophy,” he said.
Returning to immigration, Tancredo expanded on why Republicans couldn’t get reform past the House.
“The elites want it. Every time they move closer to codifying it the grassroots rises up,” he said. “If they could sneak it in, though — wait, look.”
Suddenly, Tancredo’s face turned to horror. He pointed to the mohawked barista who had served us and was now leaving the café after finishing her shift. As she walked away, he could see a pattern of raised scars depicting skeletal angel wings across her upper back.
“Oh my goodness, that lady’s back!” he said, not particularly concerned if she was within earshot. “Those are self-inflicted. My gosh.”
"At my funeral they’ll probably play — what’s that song from Man of La Mancha? ‘To Dream The Impossible Dream.’"'
Returning to the interview, I asked whether Tancredo feared – as many of his critics within the GOP warned – that Republicans were losing their grip on the country. After all, the generation of young baristas is much more diverse and Democratic than its older counterparts. Many Republicans fear that without expanding their appeal to emerging blocs like Latinos, they’ll lose their chance at a governing majority. Tancredo doesn’t believe Latinos will ever vote Republican regardless of the party’s immigration position. Does that mean it’s too late?
“I certainly worry about it,” he said. “When people recognize in a Democracy that they can vote themselves government largesse, it’s the end of the experiment.”
“As Democrats attempt to build that base, force more people into food stamps, more people onto welfare, more people into some sort of dependency on government, even if it’s just to get their health care, is there a point in time when we can’t go back?” he asked. “Yeah, I suppose so. Are we there? I don’t know. Sometimes I think so, sometimes I think we still got a prayer.”
It was possible, Obama may have “overplayed his hand” and gotten things off track for now, he said. He couldn’t be sure. But there was no point dwelling on it for long.
“I’ll continue to rail against it no matter what,” he said. “At my funeral they’ll probably play -- what’s that song from Man of La Mancha? ‘To Dream The Impossible Dream.’”